When it comes to the benefit that a caring, involved father has for an infant, very little research has been done, despite the fact that psychologists, social workers, and news reporters often tell us of the important role that fathers play in children’s development.
The impact of the mother’s relationship on a young baby is undeniable, given the close biological connection and the harrowing journey of pregnancy and childbirth that mother and child share.
However, when a new mother demonstrates dangerous behavior or shows a reckless disregard for her role as a parent, there is little question that it is better for another loving, responsible adult– whether a grandparent or a father – to nurture the infant, rather than the disinterested mother. This would especially seem the case for dads who are loving and dependable and ready to step up to the role.
Unfortunately, the law has not been quick to recognize the reality that sometimes a dad is the best parent for a baby, and this is especially true when parents are unwed. Before 1990, unwed fathers in many states had no right to challenge a mother’s decision to put an infant up for adoption, even if a lawyer could prove that a better, safer living situation would be provided by the father. Since every third infant in the United States is now born out of wedlock, this is cause for concern.
Until 1990 in New York, a father had to live with a mother for the six months prior to a child’s birth to have any say on the adoption issue. The New York State Court of Appeals found this policy an unconstitutional violation of fathers’ rights. A number of other states quickly followed suit.
More recently, in 2012, Utah passed House Bill 308, which requires an unwed mother who wants to place a child up for adoption to notify the biological father in advance. An infant born to a Michigan mother who is married to someone other than the baby’s biological daddy may now be claimed by the real dad through a court paternity procedure, thanks to House Bill 4067.
Typically the law has given biological mothers more power over an infant’s fate and the lion’s share of credit for an infant’s well-being. But recently researchers are finding that fathers play a very important role in the initial stages of a child’s life. Babies benefit tremendously from interaction with their fathers, and a child who has more numerous, positive interactions with its father as a small infant will have fewer behavioral problems at the age of one. Such a child will be more confident and sociable with strangers.
Like mothers, fathers even go through hormonal changes when their children are born. The smell of a father’s biological baby causes his testosterone levels to drop, making him less aggressive and more nurturing. Fathers who are given a “primary care role,” tending to their infants alone for at least 20 hours a week, show greater happiness with their roles as parents, and their babies show greater happiness in the presence of their fathers.
When a Chicago father reunited with his infant son recently, welcoming the baby into his arms and into his home thanks to the work of my friend and colleague, fathers’ rights attorney Catherine Delgadillo, I admit I was touched. The father in question, like so many young people today, had fallen into a “casual” relationship that produced a child which the parents weren’t necessarily ready for. However, this particular father made a commitment to being a good parent as soon as he realized his baby was coming.
The mother of his son seemed to struggle more. She appeared intoxicated and high when the father visited mother and infant on several occasions. She shared a house with the baby’s maternal grandmother and several adult relatives, and the baby had no crib there, sleeping instead in a car seat or in a dresser drawer. The mother had also allegedly developed a relationship with a member of a street gang, and the father claimed to have witnessed the grandmother selling drugs in the home.
After he mentioned his concerns about his son’s living arrangements to the baby’s mother and grandmother, the next day he passed their house and saw them packing a car with suitcases. The young father panicked, thinking his infant might be taken to Florida, where the mother had relatives she could stay with.
Catherine Delgadillo petitioned for an order of protection on the young man’s behalf, and now the baby is staying with his dad, who is stably employed, who has his own apartment, and who has acquired a crib for his son to sleep in. Delgadillo says she will never forget this man’s relief and delight in learning of his newfound role as a primary caretaker.
Sadly, in too many states today – in Florida, Wisconsin, and in Oklahoma, to name a few – an unwed father with a vulnerable infant in this kind of situation might not be so lucky.
The unwed dad would have no legal rights to his child, and if the mother took the child out of state, the father could lose his baby forever. And that’s a crying shame.